I may be America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist, but I am not a master of efficiency when it comes to work. I'm easily distracted and routinely succumb to the siren song of social media.
(I'll give you a moment — it's always hard to learn one of your heroes has flaws.)
Work distractions have always existed, but we now have a world of distractions literally at our fingertips. So the question is: What's the best way to blend this technology into our daily work?
Recent studies by Gloria Mark, a professor in the University of California at Irvine's Department of Informatics, and a team from Microsoft Research shine a light on this issue and come up with some unexpected results.
In a paper titled "Bored Mondays and Focused Afternoons: The Rhythm of Attention and Online Activity in the Workplace," the researchers closely monitored 32 information workers and found how their focus ebbed and flowed throughout the day.
They found that our ability to focus picks up steam throughout the morning, cresting around 11 a.m., then hits a daily peak around midafternoon. But those periods of focused work, when you'd think we'd be the most "into" what we're doing, are not when we're the happiest.
The subjects reported their highest levels of satisfaction while doing routine busywork, or "rote work" as Mark calls it in the study.
"I thought we were going to find that focused work makes people happiest," Mark said in an interview. "But people are happiest when they're doing rote work, just mechanical kind of work. The question is, why aren't they happy when they're focused? I think it's because when you're focused, you're also stressed."
Rote work also might provide us with the short-term gratification that doesn't come from chipping away at long-term projects. If we take care of some paperwork and respond to a few lingering emails, that allows us to feel we've accomplished something.
The study also looked at how the use of Facebook interplays with people's focus on work, finding that the social media site may not be so much a distraction as a quick way to take a break. According to the study, "it may not be the interruptions that break focus; it may be that lack of focus comes first, leading to susceptibility to interruptions."
The study continues: "Activities that are more personal and less critical, e.g., Facebook and personal email, may allow people to slowly ease into a more engaging and productive state."
Mark said: "Social media does offer a break from work. So we might extrapolate that, in the workplace, social media is providing not so much a distraction but a break that relieves stress."
Which leads us to another paper by Mark and Microsoft Research that found that Facebook interactions at work can leave us in better moods at the end of the day than face-to-face interactions with people.
"At the end of the day, when people reflected back on their day, the more time they were on Facebook, the happier they were," Mark said. "The more Facebook people do, the more engaged they report being at work."
Part of the reason, Mark posits, is that every human interaction we have requires a certain time commitment: "You have to stop what you're doing, there's a greeting ritual, you have to make eye contact, there's a parting ritual. With Facebook, you can just go in and out so quickly. It gives you more control of the interaction."
Don't misread that as an endorsement of online-only interactions. Our face-to-face activity at work is crucial not just socially, but also in terms of innovation and the ability to brainstorm.
Mark's point is that something often viewed as slacking off can be a beneficial activity for workplace morale and productivity.
There have to be limits, of course, and that's where Mark sees that the technology tempting us away from work could also be used to draw us back in and take advantage of our natural work patterns.
"Technology is the culprit, but I believe it can be the solution as well," she said. "These rhythms can inform the design of technologies that can detect when people are focused and when they're not and could offer ways that can get us back on track, by having smart computers that redirect our focus. I think there are interventions that can be done to get people back on track."
Say you're using a work-related program and haven't changed windows for quite some time. That's an indication you're focused — which is good. But holding that focus too long can lead to stress and unhappiness.
So, after a certain amount of time — perhaps determined by some kind of wearable device that monitors stress levels, like the fitness bracelets that are becoming popular — your computer could prompt you to take a break. It might open up Facebook for you or otherwise lead you in a de-stressing direction.
On the other hand, if you're lingering too long on a social media site, a prompt could direct you back to work.
These are approaches that would recognize the natural ebb and flow of our attention, respect our human need for interaction and distraction, and help make our workdays more efficient.
The bottom line is this: Social media sites are here to stay, so isn't it best to harness them, along with other workplace distractions, and make them work in the company's favor?
With closer study and open minds, we might find ourselves more-efficient workers. And that's something that will make everyone, even the most-beloved among us, better at what we do.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.